Notes from History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Also known as:
A History of Reading-Penguin Books (2014)
Reading Note Convention

This is the convention being followed for all reading notes exported after January 31, 2023 (and some previous exports):

KOReader/Exported Kindle Meaning
Lighten/Normal Yellow Quotables, concepts, and general ideas.
Underline Orange Further thought is required on this for clarity.
Highlighted/Bold Blue Something strikingly novel/Deeply moving/Highly thought-provoking.
Strikeout Pink In discord with this opinion.

A History of Reading-Penguin Books (2014)

Alberto Manguel

The Last Page

Time: 2021-09-01 13:50

I too soon discovered that one doesn’t simply read Crime and Punishment or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One reads a certain edition, a specific copy,recognizable by the roughness or smoothness of its paper, by its scent, by a slight tear on page 72 and a coffee ring on the right-hand corner of the back cover. The epistemological rule for reading, established in the second century, that the most recent text replaces the previous one, since it is supposed to contain it, has rarely been true in my case.

Time: 2021-09-02 01:57

Ivory, according to Virgil, is the material out of which the Gate of False Dreams is made; according to Sainte-Beuve, it is also the material out of which is made the reader’s tower.

Time: 2021-09-02 01:58

Borges once told me that, during one of the populist demonstrations organized by Perón’s government in 1950 against the opposing intellectuals, the demonstrators chanted, “Shoes yes, books no.” The retort, “Shoes yes, books yes,” convinced no one. Reality — harsh,necessary reality — was seen to conflict irredeemably with the evasive dreamworld of books.

The Silent Readers

Time: 2021-09-03 11:01

Some dogmatists became wary of the new trend; in their minds, silent reading allowed for day-dreaming, for the danger of accidie — the sin of idleness, “the destruction that wasteth at noonday”.38 But silent reading brought with it another danger the Christian fathers had not foreseen. A book that can be read privately, reflected upon as the eye unravels the sense of the words, is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener. Silent reading allows unwitnessed communication between the book and the reader, and the singular “refreshing of the mind”, in Augustine’s happy phrase.39

The Book of Memory

Time: 2021-09-03 14:15

In 1658, the eighteen-year-old Jean Racine, studying at Port-Royal des Champs under the watchful eye of religious teachers, discovered by chance an early Greek novel, The Loves of Theogonis and Charicles, whose notions of tragic love he may have recalled years later, when writing Andromaque and Bérénice. He took the book into the forest surrounding the abbey,and had begun to read it voraciously when he was surprised by the sexton, who pulled the book from the boy’s hands and threw it into a bonfire. Shortly afterwards, Racine managed to find a second copy, which was also discovered and condemned to the flames. This encouraged him to buy a third copy and learn the whole novel by heart. Then he handed it over to the fiery sexton, saying, “Now you can burn this one too, just as you did the others.”

Time: 2021-09-03 14:42

When I was ten or eleven, one of my teachers in Buenos Aires tutored me in the evenings in German and European history. To improve my German pronunciation, he encouraged me to memorize poems by Heine, Goethe and Schiller, and Gustav Schwab’s ballad “Der Ritter und der Bodensee”, in which a rider gallops across the frozen Lake of Constance and,on realizing what he has accomplished, dies of fright on the far shore. I enjoyed learning the poems but I didn’t understand of what use they might possibly be. “They’ll keep you company on the day you have no books to read,” my teacher said. Then he told me that his father, murdered in Sachsenhausen, had been a famous scholar who knew many of the classics by heart and who, during his time in the concentration camp, had offered himself as a library to be read to his fellow inmates. I imagined the old man in that murky,relentless, hopeless place, approached with a request for Virgil or Euripides, opening himself up to a given page and reciting the ancient words for his bookless readers. Years later, I realized that he had been immortalized as one of the crowd of roaming book-savers in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Learning to Read

Time: 2021-09-03 15:11

the boy about to be initiated was wrapped in a prayer shawl and taken by his father to the teacher. The teacher sat the boy on his lap and showed him a slate on which were written the Hebrew alphabet, a passage from the Scriptures and the words “May the Torah be your occupation.” The teacher read out every word and the child repeated it. Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it, thereby bodily assimilating the holy words. Also, biblical verses were written on peeled hard-boiled eggs and on honey cakes, which the child would eat after reading the verses out loud to the teacher.

Time: 2021-09-03 20:54

Few students were rich enough to buy books,19 and often only the teacher possessed these expensive volumes. He would copy the complicated rules of grammar onto the blackboard — usually without explaining them, since, according to scholastic pedagogy, understanding was not a requisite of knowledge. The students were then forced to learn the rules by heart. As might be expected, the results were often disappointing.

Well… Books are cheap now but understanding is still not a requisite for learning.

The Missing First Page

Time: 2021-09-03 21:51

Kafka’s intuition that if the world has coherence, it is one that we can never fully comprehend — that if it offers hope, it is (as he once replied to Max Brod) “not for us” — led him to see, in this very irresolvability, the essence of the world’s richness.13 Walter Benjamin noted in a celebrated essay that in order to understand Kafka’s view of the world “one must keep in mind Kafka’s way of reading”,14 which Benjamin compared to that of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in the allegorical tale in The Brothers Karamazov: “We have before us,” says the Inquisitor, speaking to Christ returned to earth, “a mystery which we cannot grasp. And precisely because it is a mystery we have had the right to preach it, to teach the people that what matters is neither freedom nor love, but the riddle, the secret,the mystery to which they have to bow — without reflection and even without conscience.”15 A friend who saw Kafka reading at his desk said that he reminded him of the anguished figure depicted in the painting A Reader of Dostoevsky by the Czech expressionist Emil Filla,who seems to have fallen into a trance while reading the book he still holds in his grey hand.

Picture Reading

Time: 2021-09-03 22:05

Pope Gregory the Great would echo Saint Nilus’s views: “It is one thing to worship a picture, it is another to learn in depth, by means of pictures, a venerable story. For that which writing makes present to the reader, pictures make present to the illiterate, to those who only perceive visually, because in pictures the ignorant see the story they ought to follow, and those who don’t know their letters find that they can, after a fashion, read.Therefore, especially for the common folk, pictures are the equivalent of reading.”8 In 1025the Synod of Arras stated that “what simple people could not grasp through reading the scriptures could be learned by means of contemplating pictures.”

Nice pedagogical aspect.

Being Read To

Time: 2021-09-03 22:29

In 1865, Saturnino Martínez, cigar-maker and poet, conceived the idea of publishing a newspaper for the workers in the cigar industry, which would contain not only political features but also articles on science and literature, poems and short stories. With the support of several Cuban intellectuals, Martínez brought out the first issue of La Aurora on October 22 of that year. “Its purpose,” he announced in the first editorial, “will be to illuminate in every possible way that class of society to which it is dedicated. We will do everything to make ourselves generally accepted. If we are not successful, the blame will lie in our insufficiency, not in our lack of will.” Over the years, La Aurora published work by the major Cuban writers of the day, as well as translations of European authors such as Schiller and Chateaubriand, reviews of books and plays, and exposés of the tyranny of factory owners and of the workers’ sufferings. “Do you know,” it asked its readers on June 27, 1866, “that at the edge of La Zanja, according to what people say, there is a factory owner who puts shackles on the children he uses as apprentices?”

Time: 2021-09-04 02:01

According to Mario Sánchez, a Key West painter who in 1991 could still recall lectores reading to the cigar-rollers in the late twenties, the readings took place in concentrated silence, and comments or questions were not allowed until the session was over. “My father,” Sánchez reminisced, “was the reader in the Eduardo Hidalgo Gato cigar factory in the early 1900s until the 1920s. In the mornings, he read the news which he translated from the local newspapers. He read international news directly from Cuban newspapers brought daily by boat from Havana. From noon until three in the afternoons, he read from a novel.He was expected to interpret the characters by imitating their voices, like an actor.”Workers who had spent several years at the shops were able to quote from memory long passages of poetry and even prose. Sánchez mentioned one man who was able to remember the entire Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

The Shape of the Book

Time: 2021-09-04 11:54

It may be useful to bear in mind that printing did not, in spite of the obvious “end-of-the-world” predictions, eradicate the taste for handwritten text. On the contrary, Gutenberg and his followers attempted to emulate the scribe’s craft, and most incunabula have a manuscript appearance. At the end of the fifteenth century, even though printing was by then well established, care for the elegant hand had not died out, and some of the most memorable examples of calligraphy still lay in the future. While books were becoming more easily available and more people were learning to read, more were also learning to write,often stylishly and with great distinction, and the sixteenth century became not only the age of the printed word but also the century of the great manuals of handwriting.20 It is interesting to note how often a technological development — such as Gutenberg’s —promotes rather than eliminates that which it is supposed to supersede, making us aware of old-fashioned virtues we might otherwise have either overlooked or dismissed as of negligible importance.

Time: 2021-09-04 12:04

So successful was Aldus’s enterprise that his editions were soon being imitated throughout Europe: in France by Gryphius in Lyons, as well as Colines and Robert Estienne in Paris, and in The Netherlands by Plantin in Antwerp and Elzevir in Leiden, The Hague, Utrecht and Amsterdam. When Aldus died in 1515, the humanists who attended his funeral erected all around his coffin, like erudite sentinels, the books he had so lovingly chosen to print.

Time: 2021-09-04 12:15

Until 1935. One year earlier, after a weekend spent with Agatha Christie and her second husband in their house in Devon, the English publisher Allen Lane, waiting for his train back to London, looked through the bookstalls at the station for something to read. He found nothing that appealed to him among the popular magazines, the expensive hardbacks and the pulp fiction, and it occurred to him that what was needed was a line of cheap but good pocket-sized books.

Ain't you my brother in arms!

Private Reading

Time: 2021-09-04 13:35

For Edith Wharton, the aristocratic American novelist, the bedroom became the only refuge from nineteenth-century ceremony where she could read and write at ease.“Visualize her bed,” suggested Cynthia Ozick in a discussion of Wharton’s craft. “She used a writing board. Her breakfast was brought to her by Gross, the housekeeper, who almost alone was privy to this inmost secret of the bedchamber. (A secretary picked up the pages from the floor for typing.) Out of bed, she would have had to be, according to her code,properly dressed, and this meant stays. In bed, her body was free, and freed her pen.”39 Free also was her reading; in this private space she did not have to explain to visitors why she had chosen a book or what she thought of it. So important was this horizontal workplace that once, at the Hotel Esplanade in Berlin, Wharton had “a minor fit of hysterics because the bed in her hotel room was not properly situated; not until it had been moved to face the window did she settle down and begin to find Berlin ‘incomparable’.”


Time: 2021-09-04 15:27

The primordial relationship between writer and reader presents a wonderful paradox: in creating the role of the reader, the writer also decrees the writer’s death, since in order for a text to be finished the writer must withdraw, cease to exist. While the writer remains present, the text remains incomplete. Only when the writer relinquishes the text, does the text come into existence. At that point, the existence of the text is a silent existence, silent until the moment in which a reader reads it. Only when the able eye makes contact with the markings on the tablet, does the text come to active life. All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.

Ordainers of the Universe

Time: 2021-09-04 22:16

The alphabet sometimes served as a key for retrieving volumes. In the tenth century, for instance, the Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, in order not to part with his collection of 117,000 volumes when travelling, had them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.

Time: 2021-09-04 22:27

Baghdad was not alone in collecting Aristotle and the other Greek classics. In Cairo, the Fatimid library contained, before the Sunni purges of 1175, more than 1.1 million volumes,catalogued by subject.25 (The Crusaders, with the exaggeration induced by astonished envy,reported that there were more than 3 million books in the infidels’ hold.) Following the Alexandrian model, the Fatimid library also included a museum, an archive and a laboratory. Christian scholars such as John of Gorce travelled south to make use of these invaluable resources. In Islamic Spain too there were numerous important libraries; in Andalusia alone there were more than seventy, of which the caliphal library of Córdoba listed 400,000 volumes in the reign of al-Hakam II (961–76).

The Symbolic Reader

Time: 2021-09-05 00:25

The mere possession of books implies social standing and a certain intellectual richness; in eighteenth-century Russia, during the reign of Catherine the Great, a certain Mr. Klostermann made a fortune by selling long rows of binding stuffed with waste paper, which allowed courtiers to create the illusion of a library and thereby garner the favour of their bookish empress.

Time: 2021-09-05 00:43

Lady Wisdom is the protagonist of one of the most popular books of the fifteenth century,L’Orloge de Sapience (The Hourglass of Wisdom), written in (or translated into) French in 1389by a Franciscan friar from Lorraine, Henri Suso.28 Sometime between 1455 and 1460, an artist known to us as the Master of Jean Rolin created for it a series of exquisite illuminations. One of these miniatures depicts Wisdom sitting on her throne, surrounded by a garland of crimson angels, holding in her left arm the globe of the world and in her right hand an open book. Above her, on both sides, larger angels kneel in a starry sky;below her, to her right, five monks discuss two scholarly tomes open in front of them; to her left a crowned donor, with a book set open on a draped lectern, is praying to her. Her position is identical to that of God the Father, who sits on just such a golden throne in countless other illuminations, usually as a companion piece to the Crucifixion, holding an orb in His left hand and a book in His right, and circled by similar fiery angels.

Stealing Books

Time: 2021-09-08 09:31

For him that steals, or borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.

The Translator as Reader

Time: 2021-09-08 16:38

Even the text judged most infallible of all — God’s Word itself, the Bible — underwent a long series of transformations in the hands of its successive readers. From the Old Testament canon established in the second century AD by Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph to John Wycliffe’s English translation in the fourteenth century, the book called the Bible was at times the Greek Septuagint of the third century BC (and the basis for subsequent Latin translations), the so-called Vulgate (Saint Jerome’s Latin version of the late fourth century)and all the later Bibles of the Middle Ages: Gothic, Slavic, Armenian, Old English, West Saxon, Anglo-Norman, French, Frisian, German, Irish, Netherlandish, Central Italian,Provençal, Spanish, Catalan, Polish, Welsh, Czech, Hungarian. Each one of these was, for its readers, the Bible, yet each allowed for a different reading.

Time: 2021-09-08 16:47

In their “Preface to the Reader”, the King James translators wrote, “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernell;that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.” This meant not being afraid “of the light of Scripture” and entrusting the reader with the possibility of illumination; not proceeding archeologically to restore the text to an illusory pristine state, but to free it from the constraints of time and place; not simplifying for the sake of a shallow explanation, but allowing the depths of meaning to become apparent; not glossing the text in the scholastic manner, but constructing a new and equivalent text. “For is the kingdome of God become words or syllables?” asked the translators. “Why should we be in bondage to them if we may be free …?” The question was still being asked several centuries later.

Forbidden Reading

Time: 2021-09-08 16:58

Doc Daniel Dowdy recalled that “the first time you was caught trying to read or write you was whipped with a cow-hide, the next time with a cat-o-nine-tails and the third time they cut the first joint off your forefinger.”8Throughout the South, it was common for plantation owners to hang any slave who tried to teach the others how to spell.

The Book Fool

Time: 2021-09-08 22:28

This reading has an image. A photograph taken in 1940, during the bombing of London in the Second World War, shows the remains of a caved-in library. Through the torn roof can be seen ghostly buildings outside, and in the centre of the store is a heap of beams and crippled furniture. But the shelves on the walls have held fast, and the books lined up along them seem unharmed. Three men are standing amidst the rubble: one, as if hesitant about which book to choose, is apparently reading the titles on the spines; another, wearing glasses, is reaching for a volume; the third is reading, holding an open book in his hands. They are not turning their backs on the war, or ignoring the destruction. They are not choosing the books over life outside. They are trying to persist against the obvious odds; they are asserting a common right to ask; they are attempting to find once again — among the ruins, in the astonished recognition that reading sometimes grants — an understanding.

Media/Library At WWII.jpg